“THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE,” the well-known forty-second chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, smuggles a mini-disquisition on whiteness into the frilly racial narrative of the novel’s complete. Printed in 1851, Melville’s e-book presents an image of race just some years earlier than the US Civil Warfare. The image is totally, tragically trendy—such that, 100 and seventy-odd years later, a reasonably superficial therapy of its themes nonetheless lands with inconceivable weight. Which is to say that Wu Tsang’s new characteristic movie, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, manages to take care of the novel’s nauseous sway between gentle and darkish. For Melville’s narrator, the whiteness of the whale is true horror—the terrible totality of colour and lightweight, and but additionally its eerie absence. White and black, whale and sea, comprise twin points of 1 chic. From the elegant reversal at story’s finish, the place the hunted claims vengeance on the hunters, to extra philosophical slippages between distinction that dire straits demand, the heterotopia of the Pequod is the place hierarchies, meals webs, chains of command, racial prejudice, and authorized gradations of humanhood invert and convulse and intermingle.
Tsang’s movie, with a script by Sophia Al-Maria, is billed as a silent film, and it’s true that Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, Ahab, and the remainder converse in intertitles. A reside chamber orchestra performs Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee’s rating, complemented by creaking wooden and rolling thunder. However the movie additionally wears a up to date body: The mystic Sub-Sub Librarian, performed by theorist Fred Moten, delivers a voice-over from an amphitheater of matted books. Moten, very a lot taking part in Moten, is the narrator of this story, inside which nests the parable of Moby-Dick—a form of ur-text in Tsang’s imaginative and prescient. The white whale swims by means of a blackness that precedes creation, precedes the Phrase of Genesis (so says the Sub-Sub Librarian), and succeeds it, too. After the white whale destroys the black ship, Ishmael rises to the floor to inform Melville’s story whereas Pip (performed as a toddler by Titilayo Adebayo), the cabin-boy pushed mad by a unadorned encounter with the deep, sinks to inform Tsang’s, down and down into the blackness, eventually discovering the primary quantity of their sub-sub library: a gold-embossed hardback version of Moby-Dick.
What does Tsang’s dramatization do to Melville’s masterpiece? Largely Sparknote its explorations of race, of labor, of nature violated. Largely reify its queerness. The supply materials is a form of cowl story: As Ahab humors his thirst for revenge within the financial exercise of whaling, Tsang makes use of the pretext of Moby Dick to bask in lush, rippling choreography, cross-lighting, and seductive tableaux. Tsang’s adaptation derives its energy from the eroticism of movie’s physicality. The pitching deck of the picket whaler is evoked by means of the results of early cinema: The digital camera tilts and the actors fling themselves stage left. Outdated movie reels of the Nantucket docks bookend passages of high-test HD. There’s a lingering emphasis on the iron of the harpoon, the coil of the manila rope. The spruce and catgut and horsehair of the orchestra produce the easy chimes of Western musicality: minor to main to minor to main.
And the sailors’ our bodies, too: They swab the deck in unison, spoon of their skinny hammocks. The e-book’s well-worn opening phrases, “Name me Ishmael,” Tsang coyly reimagines as the reply to Ishmael’s “bosom buddy” Queequod’s query the morning after a one-night stand. Throughout a storm, the ship and officers and crew reside or die as one physique. Once they kill a whale, they devour its physique as one. The scenes of butchery are significantly improbable, the oiled, muscled limbs of the dancers reaching right into a petrochemical slurry of gel and glitter. Swiped on the higher eyelid, the whale’s blubber turns into the mystic’s mark borne by the Librarian. The cosmos of a hurricane, the whale’s bleeding spout, and the spiral-armed galaxy share a form. Tsang’s therapy focuses on the connectedness of every part, and the truth that every part principally consists of this connectedness, which is the void, which is blackness or Blackness. The 2 characters proven in isolation: the captain Ahab poring over charts in his insanity, the Librarian of their examine, are matter and antimatter each. The Librarian in his tesseract—timeless, genderless, or all-time and all-gender—delivers the movie’s solely monologue, passages from Melville and trendy diegesis flecked with Motenesque asides: “Shiiiiiit.”
On this movie’s understanding, cinema is an assembly-line of photographs. The hellfire of the whaling ship is a microcosm of the fossil-fired capitalism blooming again on land. Tsang revels within the whaling trade’s sexuality and consumption. In a single memorable scene, younger Pip, the cabin-boy-cum-Librarian, spots a contemporary oil derrick by means of their spyglass; blinking, they appear once more—and lo, it’s MOBY DICK, his glossy white physique emitting spouts of rotoscoped glitter just like the supply of infinite gas. The Whale of the title, and all whales, are the ocean. From harvesting sperm whales to extinction to dredging up lifeless dinosaurs and poisoning the Gulf, the Arctic, the Mediterranean, the petrochemicals thinning mollusks’ shells and thickening the sundown . . . we (people) are searching the ocean. Searching the oceanic. The infinite itself. Making an attempt to kill the thriller. The compulsion, which is Ahab’s, and Tsang’s, and ours, is inexhaustible.
Moby-Dick, or: The Whale will display as a part of the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27. Its premiere happened at The Shed in New York from April 15–17.